SPF, UPF and UV Protective Clothing

Charlie forgot his sun cream, at least his body isnt burnt
Ouch Charlie!! At least your body isn't sunburnt thanks to your UV protective clothing!
Source: Flickr by A.M. Kuchling.

Read on for some helpful advice on the ratings used for sun protection clothing, and enjoy the sun this summer if you are camping, hiking, climbing or even just in the garden relaxing.

The days grow longer as we enter June; July and August fast approach. With baited breath the UK waits for the advent of the British Summer. Will it be hot, cold, dry or wet? Will we have biblical floods, hurricanes or snow? The Met Office has predicted a “Barbecue Summer” with temperatures above average and highs above 30°C (86°F) we wait to see if this prediction is taking the precipitation!!

Protection From Sunburn

If the summer is as predicted, to enjoy the warm weather without getting sunburnt or sunstroke we all know it’s important to stay hydrated, covered and use a sun lotion. What I’m sure many of us don’t know is that sun lotions may not fully protect us from the Sun’s Ultraviolet Rays. Ultraviolet light is divided in to UVA, UVB and UVC. The rating system Sun Protection Factor (SPF) used on many sun protection products such as creams, only tests the products ability to block out UVB rays which can directly cause cancer. UVA rays were thought to be relatively harmless and therefore there was no need for protection. However, recent evidence has suggested UVA rays damage DNA and indirectly cause cancer. Therefore when buying sun-block, sun cream etc make sure that as well as having an SPF rating it also protects against UVA. Thankfully we are safe from UVC as it can not penetrate the ozone layer…. (Er isn’t there still a hole in it?)

UV Protective Clothing

Clothing has always protected against the sun, as it is simply a barrier between the Sun’s rays and our skin, as health awareness has become more prominent, many manufacturers are now producing clothing that by design protects from UV rays. Manufacturers such as the North Face and Sprayway have gone further and are releasing clothing with what are called Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) ratings, that’s good news I hear you say and I quite agree, but what are UPF ratings?

Sprayways Discovery Tec T - Offers UPF 50 protection.
Sprayway's Discovery Tec T - Offers UPF 50 protection.

The Science Bit

Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) is a rating used to classify the ability of clothing to block out the Ultraviolet rays (UVA & UVB) that potentially harm the skin. An item with a UPF rating of 50 means that only one fiftieth of the suns rays will pass through the item, approximately 98% of UVA and UVB rays will be blocked. Gambichler et al. (2001) suggested consumers should only purchase clothing with a minimum UPF rating of 30 to ensure protection against the sun. This is quite startling when you consider an average white woven cotton T shirt will have a UPF rating of around 5.


Burn Baby Burn, Not If You’re Wearing UV Protective Clothing!!

The previous paragraph is great but it doesn’t really give an idea as to how long the average person can stay in the sun. Unfortunately, sunburn is dependent on a number of factors, the strength of sun, the colour of the skin, the amount of UV reflection from the surrounding area etc.

As we all burn at different rates scientists use an average calculation that most fair skinned people will burn if unprotected, in 10 minutes. For example, If a person can stay in the sun for 10 minutes without protection before getting sunburnt by wearing UPF 30 clothing that person should be able to remain in the sun without getting sunburned for 300 minutes (10 minutes x UPF 30 = 300). In short, the higher the UPF number the more UV rays are blocked by your clothes and the longer it takes for your skin to burn. The previous calculation is a guide, we all have different tolerances to the sun, please do not test yours.

The graph below shows the value of using clothing with UPF protection over 30 as compared to normal clothing or being unprotected as the amount of time it takes to burn the skin that is covered is significantly increased.

A Graph Showing Approximate Burn Times With Different UPFs.
A Graph Showing Approximate Burn Times With Different UPFs Based On An Average Burn Time Of 10 Minutes.

So Whats the Message?

What does this mean to you and I? Should we go out and purchase clothing with a UPF factor or clothing that uses SPF or even that just says they block UV rays? Simply speaking it’s a personal choice, Cancer Research UK predicts skin cancer will, by 2024 be the fourth most common cancer in the UK and advise people to wear sunglasses with UV protection, sun cream and cooling clothing. Therefore, the addition of some UPF 30+ items of clothing to the summer wardrobe may be a good idea as it reduces the amount of UV exposure and potential skin problems.

Cancer Risk

No responsible article about the dangers of the sun would be complete without stating that in England and Wales, approximately 2300 people die every year due to differing skin cancers, for more information please visit the following NHS links.

NHS information on skin cancers.
NHS information on caring for your skin in the sun.

Most of our families have been touched by Cancer, and statistics by Cancer Research UK show 1 in 3 of us will be ill with some form of Cancer in our life, its best not to increase the risk by acting foolhardy when in the sun.

North Face Nigel UPF 30 shirt, ideal for out and about. But whys it called Nigel?
The North Face Nigel UPF 30 shirt, ideal for out and about. Great shirt, but why's it called Nigel? Can anyone tell us?

Final Thoughts

The manufacturers must be applauded for continuing to push the boundaries of clothing design as seen by my colleague Ryan’s post on Bamboo and Cocona, UPF clothes continue this advancement not only do they protect, but are stylish, comfortable and value for money, costing no more than standard clothing.

UPF rated clothing including base layers, non-technical tops, hats and trousers can be easily viewed on CheapTents.com, and being from the leading outdoor manufacturers you can be assured as to their quality.

Please Note

UPF clothing only protects the areas of the body the garment is designed to cover. Where skin is exposed make sure you still use sun cream that has UVA and UVB protection.


Gambichler,T. Bader, A. Avermaete, A. Altmeyer, P and Hoffmann, K.(2001). Sun-protective clothes: accuracy of laboratory testing, Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, Vol. 15, No. 4, pp 371-2.


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